NicaNotes: Gracias a Dios: The People’s Church in Nicaragua

By Becca Renk

[This article was first published by LAProgressive on March 4, 2023.]

(Becca Renk has worked in sustainable community development in Nicaragua since 2001, and organizes study trips to Nicaragua through the Casa Ben Linder in Managua. She lives with her family in Ciudad Sandino.)

Local painters finish a mural of Mary in the community of San Juan de Oriente.

“We are not typical Catholics,” explains Yamil Ríos of the Saint Paul the Apostle Christian Base Community in Managua. “Because we don’t have a priest here, thanks be to God.” Around the room parishioners chuckle on their folding chairs which are set up in a half circle. At the front of the room, musicians shift their instruments, gearing up for another upbeat number.

In today’s Nicaragua, there is a rupture between the Catholic hierarchy and its abandoned base. The politicized official church has long collaborated with U.S. imperialism and, as a consequence, is losing the community of faith comprised of the poor and working people of Nicaragua.

Christian Base Communities with a preferential option for the poor

Christian Base Communities in Nicaragua, like St. Paul the Apostle, flourished during the insurrection in the 1970s and after the 1979 overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship. This bloody dictatorship was supported by the Catholic Church hierarchy during its almost 45 years of rule. These communities were places where lay people led liberation theology bible studies, celebrated mass and helped their neighbors.

Unlike Cuba, the Nicaraguan revolution was never secular. Nicaragua’s Revolution was so influenced by liberation theology that in the 1980s there was a popular saying: “Between Christianity and revolution there is no contradiction.” Foreign minister Father Miguel d’Escoto, a Maryknoll priest, often said: “You can’t be a follower of Jesus and not be a revolutionary.”

Father Miguel was not the only priest in government. At that time, several others were also at the cabinet level working to improve the lives of the poor majority. But they were not the priests of the Church hierarchy, which was openly opposed to the Sandinista Revolution. Pope John Paul II himself came to Nicaragua to chastise the priests in government, and the Vatican later censored them.

Thanks to relentless antagonism from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, few faith communities like St. Paul the Apostle are still active in Nicaragua today.

“This community is a lay community in the sense that we are the ones who carry out our own religious rites. We don’t consider that those who are ordained – priests – are above us or have more power or more authority,” explains community member Eduardo Valdez.

“In the early 1990s after the Sandinista party was defeated at the polls, the Catholic hierarchy didn’t look favorably on communities like ours,” Valdez continues, “due to our belief in the preferential option for the poor. They wanted to impose silence on us, they wanted us to quit singing our songs of commitment, and there was a time of conflict and rupture with the priests. Since 1994 we have not had a priest; so we are lay people, women and men, who carry out our own religious celebrations.”

At the community’s Sunday service, three women sit at the central table and lead mass with prayers and readings from the Bible in an order familiar to Catholics everywhere. When it’s time for the homily, however, the floor is opened to the parishioners. The mic is passed around as young and old – and mostly women – give their interpretation of the gospel as it relates to them and their lives in their working class neighborhood of Managua. When it’s time for communion, the lay women explicitly invite everyone to take communion, no matter what religious tradition they come from. “Everyone is welcome,” they insist.

The musicians strike up a song from the Nicaraguan Peasants Mass. “Let’s go to the Lord’s cornfield,” they sing. “Jesus Christ invites us to his harvest of love, the corn shines in the sunlight, let’s go to the cornfield of communion.” In place of communion wafers are delicious traditional corn cookies. After everyone has taken communion, the basket of leftover cookies is passed around and everyone munches on more.

Rupture of Nicaraguans from the Catholic hierarchy

While the St. Paul the Apostle Community is the oldest such community in the country, tracing its roots back to the 1960s, its members are not by any means the only faithful to break with the traditional Catholic Church.   Recent polls show that only 37% of Nicaraguans today identify as Catholics, as opposed to 94% in the mid-90s and 50% only a few years ago. What has caused this recent rupture?

During the U.S.-led coup attempt in 2018, violent criminals held the entire country hostage for months through thousands of road blocks which, in addition to crippling the country’s economy and causing the loss of thousands of jobs, were centers of terrible violence.

Although the U.S. was funding the attempted ousting of Nicaragua’s democratically elected Sandinista government, the Catholic Church hierarchy in Nicaragua was instigating it. In several cities around the country, priests called for violence from the pulpit. Some actually initiated violence, including in Ciudad Sandino where a parish priest was seen encouraging the burning of the Sandinista party headquarters and the looting of the social security offices.

At the “roadblocks of death,” Sandinista supporters were identified, beaten, raped, tortured and murdered – with priests watching and sometimes participating in the horrifying violence. Video evidence shows priests storing weapons in churches, beating people, watching as people are doused in gasoline, and directing gangs to disappear bodies. Parishioners saw with their own eyes what the priests did, and unsurprisingly, have turned away from the Church as a result.

Bishop Rolando Álvarez

“What happened here in the Nicaraguan Catholic Church was really horrible,” says peasant farmer Benjamín Cabrera of Ciudad Sandino. “Because the messages that the priests give during mass are just full of hate…Father Rolando Álvarez, what an onslaught, how he expresses himself, how he turns on the people, how he sickens the hearts of the people.”

Former bishop of Matagalpa and Estelí, Álvarez is one of the most reviled figures in the Nicaraguan church, known for his offensive rhetoric, openly calling for violence from the pulpit and directing violence in 2018. In the town of Chagüitillo, during mass at the church for which the people themselves had raised the money and built with their own hands, Álvarez asked who in the congregation was Sandinista. When all the Sandinistas raised their hands, he pointed to the door and said, “Get out of my church.”

Beginning in 2016, radio stations and TV channels run by Álvarez received US funding channeled for undermining the government. Despite government warnings that these activities were in violation of the law and status as religious media, he never ceased his destabilizing efforts even after 2018. Eventually, seven radio stations and two TV channels were closed for legal violations in 2022 by Telcor, the entity that regulates communications.

Alvarez ignored invitations to dialogue and he and colleagues barricaded themselves in the cathedral of Matagalpa for several days. Last August, Álvarez’ was placed under house arrest and investigated for a series of crimes, including undermining national integrity, promoting hatred and violence via information and communication technologies, aggravated obstruction of state functions, and contempt of authority. Recently, the Nicaraguan government approved deporting Álvarez, along with 222 convicted traitors, to the U.S.

Álvarez refused to board the plane to the U.S. without first speaking to the Nicaraguan bishops. He also demanded that the 11 priests and seminarians who had already boarded – co-conspirators of his who had been convicted of crimes – deplane to speak with him. Because the decision to deport Álvarez was made by the Nicaraguan government and had nothing to do with the Church, his demands were refused.

Alvarez was told he could choose to board the plane or not; he chose to remain in Nicaragua. Much to his surprise, Álvarez was not brought back to his home to continue house arrest, but was sent straight to La Modelo prison. He was tried and convicted later that week and sentenced to 26 years in prison for his crimes.

People keep their faith, but few go to church

“I don’t know what happened to the Church,” Cabrera throws his hands up. “It hurts me because I’ve always been a Catholic, I was a Delegate of the Word. But how can I now support these priests? How could I look at them? The Church has fallen. People keep their faith, but few go to church…Maybe where you’re from they tell a different story, but that’s not true. If you go out and ask people, ‘What happened to the Church?’ The story that we’re telling you, you will hear it from a lot of other people too. The church was one of the primary bases of the coup.”

In light of the actions of hatred and violence of its priests in Nicaragua, a country where 77% of the population support the Sandinista government, perhaps the Church should be less surprised by its empty pews.

Although attendance at Catholic mass is shrinking, the popularity of personal over institutionalized religion is growing: people praying and worshipping in their homes and lay communities, continuing their faith in what Edwin Sánchez calls a “close and quality relationship with [God rather than] a hollow and distant one.”

This has been evidenced in by enthusiastic turnouts at colorful and diverse religious activities during Lent – Catholics embarked on days’ long religious pilgrimages by ox cart and celebrated festivals of traditional foods for Lent held around the country and included children reenacting the stations of the cross. A recent Pentecostal revival drew a crowd of 40,000 people from around the country. The Hindu traditional Festival of Colors was celebrated by Indian citizens living in Nicaragua, many of whom have married Nicaraguans and settled in Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan government sent a special message to Muslim communities at the start of the month of Ramadan – Managua has a mosque with an active Muslim community of over 300 people, many of their families are of Palestinian origin and have been in Nicaragua for generations.

Today, Nicaragua remains a profoundly spiritual country with thriving religious communities, but they are not the religious communities that the traditional Catholic Church would like to see. Their existence challenges the very foundations of the Church and it is therefore unsurprising that they draw the ire of its priests.

“A real option for the poor can’t be purely spiritual, just an empty concept where the poor continue being poor and miserable,” explains Valdez of the St. Paul the Apostle Community. “That option for the poor has political implications, it has implications for power. It means that we the poor have to access power to make that option a reality, and we see the hand of God in that political struggle, in the liberation of the people. That is why we are Sandinistas. We are a Sandinista and anti-imperialist community because of our faith.”

As Father Miguel d’Escoto said, “You cannot be a follower of Jesus if you are not a revolutionary, and that, inevitably, implies being a recalcitrant anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist.”

By Nan McCurdy

Government Hydrocarbon Subsidies Help Economy
The decision by the government of President Daniel Ortega to subsidize all of the increases in hydrocarbons since 2022 has had a positive impact on the economy. This decision prevented an increase in prices of cooking gas, gasoline and diesel, public transportation, electricity, and drinking water for the population. The impact on the electricity rate due to international oil prices has been US$120 million. The Sandinista government has absorbed the increase that in other countries gets passed onto consumers. In Nicaragua’s case it has benefitted more than 1.1 million families. In 2022 the government contributed close to US$90 million in subsidies for gasoline and diesel fuels to benefit Nicaraguan families and economic sectors. In Managua, 966,000 users have benefited from the transportation subsidy as well as more than 300,000 users on the Caribbean Coast and some 300,000 users of interurban and water transport, with a direct benefit for all cargo transportation. This has meant that impacts on food prices have been avoided. The month of June 2022 saw the highest peak in oil prices, reaching US$114 per barrel. (Informe Pastran, 27 March 2023)

Pantasma Crater Among Important Meteor Impacts in the World
The Pantasma crater has been incorporated into the Earth Impact Database of the Dominion Observatory, located in the Canadian city of Ottawa, which has the most important meteor impact database in the world. The Pantasma crater, which was made about 800,000 years ago, is being internationally recognized as one of the four most important meteor impacts that occurred in the last million years of the Earth’s age. The portal has recorded more than 200 impact craters and Pantasma is the first recognized in Central America and was included among the 13 recorded in South American. The IGG-CIGEO has conducted studies at Pantasma in order to identify evidence to explain the origin of the crater. In coordination with Dr. Pierre Rochette, of the University of Marseille in France, geomorphological, petrographic and geochemical analyses were carried out to reveal the nature of the crater. (Radio La Primerisima, 23 March 2023)

Nicaragua has Highest Covid Vaccination Rate in the Region
The Pan American Health Organization reported this week that with 95% of the population fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Nicaragua is the country in the Central American region with the highest percentage of fully vaccinated population; followed by Costa Rica (84.5%), Panama (72.8%), El Salvador (68.8%), Honduras (57.9%), Guatemala (41.5%). (Nicaragua News, 27 March 2023)

Health Ministry Presents National Map of Diseases
The Ministry of Health presented the updated National Map of Diseases that affect Nicaraguans. The most frequent chronic diseases reported in 2022 were hypertension (260,811 cases); diabetes mellitus (135,695) and rheumatic diseases (100,638). The report also notes that the main cause for hospitalization last year was pneumonia (27,861) and the main cause of death was acute myocardial infarction (5,159). The Pan American Health Organization Interim Representative, Dr. Enrique Pérez, stated that “PAHO wishes to congratulate the Nicaragua Government for making available to the population detailed information on the health situation and public health achievements. This type of mapping allows authorities to design strategies and programs to improve healthcare indicators.” (Nicaragua News, 22 March 2023)

New Bridge Inaugurated in Wiwilí
The new Kilambé bridge across the Coco River in Wiwilí municipality, Jinotega Department, was inaugurated on March 21.  The cost of the bridge was US$2.52 million benefiting 89,039 inhabitants. Construction of the bridge is in response to the needs of the population in the area who experience isolation and precariousness each rainy season when the Coco River rises. Financing for the project came from the General Budget. (Nicaragua News, 24 March 2023)

Assembly Approves Special Window to Expedite Foreign Trade
The National Assembly approved a law creating a Single Window for Foreign Trade in order to streamline procedures and promote exports and imports. Deputy José Figueroa, vice-chair of the economy committee, explained that the purpose of the window will be to facilitate the procedures and legal security in foreign trade-related activities in imports and exports. It will use a technological platform attached to the Ministry for the Development of Industry and Commerce (MIFIC). Deputy Wálmaro Gutiérrez, chair of the committee, pointed out that foreign direct investments closed in 2022 at US$1.56 billion and the Single Window will promote further growth and security for businesses. (Radio La Primerisima, 28 March 2023)

Launch of CABEI’s First Bond on London Stock Exchange
Officials from the Nicaraguan Embassy in the United Kingdom accompanied the President of the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), Dr. Dante Mosi, at the closing ceremony of the London Stock Exchange, marking the launch of the successful issue of the multilateral financial organization’s first Global Social Bond for 1.2 billion pounds sterling. The placement of this first bond is a milestone for CABEI, for the region and for the member countries, as it is the first on the London Stock Exchange, which is a global financial center. Its placement is a testimony to the financial soundness of this institution and reflects the trust placed in it by investors and will allow it to continue financing development and social impact projects in Central American countries. It also paves the way for future placements in support of the ecological, social and sustainability needs of Nicaragua and other countries in the region. Shrey Kohli, Director of Capital Markets at the London Stock Exchange, welcomed CABEI’s first social bond to the London Stock Exchange’s sustainable bond market, as a leading global center for green, social and sustainable finance, and congratulated CABEI on this issue, which will be the basis for future green, social and/or sustainability bonds. Ambassador Guisell Morales congratulated Dr. Dante Mossi for the issuance of this important bond, the proceeds of which will support the prosperity of Nicaragua and all the Bank’s partner countries. (Radio La Primerisima, 23 March 2023)

New Solar-Thermal Hybrid Generation Plant
To promote economic development through renewable energies, the Ministry of Energy and Mines granted a generation license to the Solar-Thermal Hybrid Generation Plant in San Juan de Nicaragua on the Caribbean coast, which has an installed capacity of 300 kilowatts of clean energy. This represents a reduction in emissions by replacing most of the bunker fuel with renewable solar energy, contributing to the fulfillment of the country’s climate commitments. The plant has had an impact on the quality of life of more than 470 families in this municipality, guaranteeing a better economy through clean and constant energy. The installation of the plant had an investment of US$1.4 million, and it can be operated through internet technology, guaranteeing that between 60% and 80% of the energy produced is renewable. See photos: (Radio La Primerisima, 23 March 2023)

Families Doing Reforestation Receive Economic Incentive
Members of the National Fund for Forestry Development (FONADEFO), who reforest their communities, protect aquifers and conserve native forest species, received monetary incentives from the National Forestry Institute (INAFOR). This initiative includes 106 families with the commitment to restore 137 hectares, mainly in the dry corridor. They use native species in the reforestation. The economic incentives are also accompanied by tools and seeds. (Radio La Primerisima, 27 March 2023)

More Employment in African Palm Companies in South Caribbean
Three companies located in El Rama in the South Caribbean Autonomous Region provide formal, direct employment to 4,100 workers. Recently, representatives of the Free Trade Zone Commission and the Ministry of Labor visited Industrial Aceitera Kukra Hill S.A., San José Extraceite S.A., and Inducaribe S.A. Among the benefits that these companies provide to their workers through collective bargaining agreements are the construction of housing for the workers, guaranteed transportation, a Christmas basket, school vouchers and quality subsidies. Recently the companies announced coming expansion and more job creation. (Editor’s note: The Nicaraguan government has said that African palm is being planted in already deforested land.) (Radio La Primerisima, 28 March 2023)

500 Corn Island Fishers Receive Economic Packages
The Ministry of the Family delivered economic packages to 546 fishermen of the municipality of Corn Island, South Caribbean Coast, in order to ensure food for the families during the closed season for lobster fishing. Members of the Navy provided protection and security during the delivery. See photos: (Radio La Primerisima, 23 March 2023)

Pilgrim Wagons Heading to Popoyuapa
Early on March 23 about 50 families from the communities Laguna #1 and Laguna #2, of the municipality of Granada began their journey in the traditional pilgrim carts to the National Shrine of Jesus del Rescate, in Popoyuapa. Believers from Masaya, Rivas and other departments of the country are also joining this tradition that dates back more than 100 years. Doña Margarita Arcia, 90 years old, said that throughout her life she has never once missed this pilgrimage. “My mother taught me and that’s how I began going. She taught us this way of going to see Jesus, who appeared on a mountain to a man who kept oxen. There were no carts, it was all paths and mountains. We take two carts, I go with my sons and daughters-in-law to see Jesus, who grants us everything we ask for,” said Arcia. The new generations also travel aboard the carts. Families can be seen along the road, reflecting the faith and culture of Granada. “We have been preparing for two weeks, buying provisions and we have had the carts ready for a week. Possibly, on Monday [March 27] we will arrive in Popoyuapa to deliver on our promises and on Thursday we will return home,” said Anielka Blas, who has been making this pilgrimage with her husband’s family for five years. See photos: (Radio La Primerisima, 23 March 2023)

Ten-day Holy Week Vacation
State workers will go on vacation during Holy Week beginning after work on March 31 and returning on Tuesday, April 11, a full ten days to relax with family and friends. Vice President Rosario Murillo said that families go to “beaches, rivers, pools, enjoying this good, calm and safe, happy life that we have in our Nicaragua.” (Radio La Primerisima, 27 March 2023)

Bishop Alvarez Receives Visit from Siblings
Images of the family reunion that Bishop Rolando Alvarez had with his siblings, Vilma and Manuel Alvarez, on March 25 at the Jorge Navarro National Penitentiary System in Tipitapa show Alvarez enjoying a visit and meal. Family reunions in these penitentiary centers allow families, friends or people close to the inmates to enjoy a moment of tranquility with their loved ones. Also, within the penitentiary system, courses are offered for the inmates’ education. These courses are promoted by the National Penitentiary System in conjunction with the National Technological Institute (INATEC). In order to guarantee integral health care a modern dental clinic was recently opened. See photos:  TN8TV, 25 March 2023